It seemed like a modest, common-sense proposal: requiring long-term substitute teachers in Louisiana to have the same educational level as the people they replace, that is, a college degree. But some Louisiana superintendents, saying the initiative substitutes unrealistic nonsense for common sense, rebelled.
Now the plan faces an uphill struggle. Last month, the state board of elementary and secondary education voted 8-2 to table the plan to impose new state requirements for substitute teachers, including a mandate that any substitute who teaches in the same classroom for more than 20 days must have a college degree.
Some viewed that vote as effectively the death knell for the proposal. But Paul G. Pastorek, the board president, vowed that he would seek to revisit the matter, possibly as soon as the next board meeting this month.
Noting that the state requires 4th and 8th graders to pass state tests before progressing to the next grade, he said: “I felt that it was unfair to the children to have substitute teachers in the classrooms who weren’t really qualified to teach the material.”
Some district superintendents say that while they support the concept, they oppose the proposal.
“What superintendent could be against having the best-qualified sub?” said Lloyd Lindsey, the superintendent of the 2,500-student West Feliciana public schools. But he said the reality in Louisiana is that finding substitutes with bachelor’s degrees is not always easy, especially in poor rural areas.
And the matter is overshadowed by a much larger problem, Mr. Lindsey argued.
“We have some districts in Louisiana that can’t even get certified teachers,” he said. “Why are we worried about subs?”
“It’s another unfunded mandate,” said Jude W. Theriot, the superintendent of the 31,000-student Calcasieu schools. He noted that no money was attached to the proposed requirements.
Louisiana is one of many states that permit individuals without a college degree to substitute teach.
“The majority of states only require a high school diploma,” said Geoffrey G. Smith, the director of the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University.
A national survey conducted by the institute in 1999 found that 21 states required a bachelor’s degree for substitute teaching, though a few of those states made exceptions, for example, for so-called emergency substitutes.
Mr. Smith said that educational background is not necessarily a recipe for good substitute teaching. “There are a lot of individuals with a wealth of experience in life” who lack a bachelor’s degree, he said. “Even someone with a Ph.D. is not [necessarily] equipped to go into a classroom.” The key, he argued, is effective training for substitute teachers.
Beyond the academic requirement for long-term substitutes, the Louisiana proposal has two other provisions. First, all substitutes who teach for a day or more would be required to have a high school diploma and undergo at least four hours of training. And second, all substitutes would have to undergo criminal-background checks.
Leslie Jacobs, a state board member who originally supported the proposal, said that after hearing the complaints from superintendents that the proposal was unrealistic and unfair, “I cried ‘uncle.’” She abstained when the board ultimately voted to table the matter.
Ms. Jacobs suggested, however, that there might be some middle ground.
“I think people are trying to work on a compromise,” she said. “I’m not clear exactly where it’s going. ... I don’t believe there are the votes [today] to pass” the bachelor’s-degree requirement.
Mr. Lindsey, the superintendent of the West Feliciana schools, expressed concern that the requirement might lead to a “numbers game,” in which districts would move a substitute teacher out after 19 days to avoid the requirement.
He and others also emphasized that pay for substitutes is a big problem. The pay varies widely in Louisiana, depending on the educational background of the individual, but in some cases it is less than $40 per day.
But Mr. Pastorek isn’t ready to give up. He says his goal is to get the proposal passed this school year.
“I think it’s not the last we’ll see of this issue,” he said. “I’m going to continue to push on it.”